Welcoming the Stranger Among Us

When poet and author Luis Rodríguez speaks to the diverse groups of students in our inner-city schools, he tells them, "Respect is the bridge to understanding" between themselves and the police, their parents, gang rivals, or people from different racial and ethnic communities. When it comes to living with immigrants among us, this is a lesson that we all must learn.

For the majority of Americans who have never left this country, the experience of pulling up roots, bidding farewell to friends and family—maybe forever—and placing oneself in the midst of an unknown culture is entirely foreign. It is helpful to remember the heroism inherent in the leap of faith these immigrants take; like Sarah and Abraham, they head off across the wilderness for an unknown country, in some cases with a repressive government or military breathing down their necks.

The volume of immigration has risen in recent years, though the rate relative to the U.S. base population is still far below past levels. Behind this new wave of immigration are many of the same causes that brought most of our ancestors to the United States—including flight from political, cultural, or religious persecution or war, as well as the search for prosperity. With global telecommunications and a world-spanning economy, it’s now possible for people around the world to be tempted by the American Dream, fueling the increase in migration.

The recent Los Angeles earthquake has shaken up the debate on immigration. California Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposals to restrict earthquake relief money to legal residents is only one in a series of anti-immigrant proposals that the governor—along with politicians in other states that receive large numbers of immigrants, such as Florida and New York—has offered.

In recent months, Wilson has proposed denying citizenship to children born in this country to illegal aliens (something that would require a constitutional amendment) and denying health and education services to undocumented immigrants. With the realization that a tough stance on immigrants wins votes in these states, even liberal Democratic officials are jumping on the anti-immigration bandwagon, including a proposal from California Sen. Barbara Boxer to send the National Guard to patrol the border with Mexico.

This backlash against immigration, both legal and illegal, is taking place now for a number of reasons, the primary one being the slumping economy that has had a tremendous impact on much of the country, especially California and Florida. Many fear that immigrants come to this country only to mooch off public assistance, and that they are heavily involved in crime.

Numerous studies have shown these beliefs to be false. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, pay as much and often more in taxes than the cost of public services they use, and they are no more likely to be involved in crime than other residents. More insidious is the nativist fear that the United States is reapidly becoming a "non-white" nation and losing its "American heritage" to this new generation of of immigrants, who come mainly from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean, instead of Europe. But the human and economic capital brough by immigrant populations often revitalizes inner-city neighborhoods that have been abandoned by the middle class.

The immigrant population also has sparked an upswing in organized labor activism, increasing wages and benefits for all employees. The power in such organizing, which includes immigrants as well as native-born workers, makes one think twice about the real motivations behind the anti-immigrant crusade by manufacturers, large-farm owners, and other labor-dependent interests.

IMMIGRATION BRINGS many problems that we are ill-prepared to deal with, problems that require both short- and long-term solutions. The short-term answer is not a simple open-door policy, nor is it to militarize our border, restrict public assistance, and join in community-splitting immigrant bashing.

Rather, the answer lies in recommitting more of the taxes collected from the immigrant population to cities like Los Angeles and Miami that are overly burdened. Small business loans, aid to inner-city schools and infrastructure, and employee protections could help the recently arrived -- as well as the native-born urban poor -- to gain economic independence.

Long-term, we need to take a fresh look at policies of the World Bank, multinationals, and other institutions that help keep entire nations as perpetual members of the "developing" world. The immigration question also presents a challenge to supporters of NAFTA who claimed the agreement would help create decent jobs in Mexico so that workers whould not be forced to leave their homes to seek financial security.

The Latino, African- Asian and European-American children that Luis Rodriquez admonishes have become integral parts of this mix called America. They are one the cutting edge of the struggle in this country for the life of our inner cities, for economic and social justice, for freedom from oppression, and for effective bonds of unity among people of color. This struggle has the potential to revive the best interests and highest ideals on which our nation was born.

Aaron Gallegos was a Sojourners asstantant editor when this article appeared.

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